View from a lookout point in Big Sur, California

8 Day California Coast Road Trip Itinerary & Planning Guide

A California road trip has been on my bucket list for a while now and this past May, Eric and I finally made it happen. From jaw-dropping coastal landscapes to wine tastings and delicious food, the California coast has it all.

We started our journey in San Jose and ended in Santa Barbara with several stops along Highway 1 (The Pacific Coast Highway) in between. As with any road trip, you have to be ready for the unexpected: good and bad. Here’s our entire itinerary with some helpful tips to help you build your own bucket-list-worthy California road trip itinerary!

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8 Day California Coast Road Trip Itinerary


Before you hop on a plane and head west, you need to nail down some logistics. Here are a few questions to ask yourself:

  • How long is my road trip going to be? In my opinion, 5 – 10 days will be ideal to get the most out of your road trip. With 5 days, you will not get very far, but you’ll at least get to see the most beautiful part of the Pacific Coast Highway in Big Sur. With 10 days, you’ll be able to make many stops and spend time exploring some areas further.
  • What are my flight options? For us, flying in and out of San Jose was the least expensive. Ideally, we would have flown into San Jose or San Francisco and flown out of Los Angeles. This would have extended our trip by one day instead of forcing us to spend a day traveling back up the monotonous Highway 5.
  • What do I want to do and see? Are you a wine lover? A photographer? A surfer? A foodie? California has so much to offer, but there’s no way you can fit it all in one trip. We prioritized staying in Paso Robles for 2 nights because we both love wine. If we weren’t interested in wine, we would have skipped Paso Robles and stayed somewhere else.

Map it out

Once you’ve got your flights and know what you want to do, map out your route using Google Maps. Keep in mind that maps can be deceiving. Two places may look close but once you hit the “directions” button it could be a different story. I’ll get more into this as I go through our itinerary, but the day we drove from Monterey to Paso Robles took way longer than I thought it would. We didn’t take into account how much we would be stopping along the way!

Remember, this drive is scenic and I’m not just saying that. It’s absolutely beautiful and you will want to stop every 5 minutes. So if the map says it will take 3 hours, go ahead and make that 5 or 6 hours.

Here is our California road trip route. I’ll break it down into smaller sections for each day below.

Day 1—Travel

The first day of our California road trip was mostly spent in transit to San Jose since we traveled from the East Coast.

We were lucky enough to fit in some family time while we were in San Jose. This worked out in our favor since we didn’t have to worry about accommodations for 3 nights of our trip (and of course, we got some quality time with my brother-in-law and his girlfriend).

If you do need a place to stay, I suggest going ahead and making the drive to Santa Cruz for your first night. It’s only a 45-minute drive and Santa Cruz is beautiful!

Hotels in Santa Cruz:

  • Bella Notte Inn: Free breakfast, Free parking, 2.5 miles from the boardwalk
  • Sea & Sand Inn: Free breakfast, Free parking, 10-minute walk to the boardwalk
  • Pacific Blue Inn: Free breakfast, Free parking, 10-minute walk to the boardwalk

Day 2—Wine tasting in Saratoga

View from Cooper Garrod Winery in Saratoga, California

Since we planned to have one full day with family near San Jose, we decided to spend it nearby in the wonderful town of Saratoga. Saratoga was absolutely beautiful and I highly recommend it if you’re staying in the area.

Wine tasting and picnic in Saratoga, California

Saratoga is about a 40-minute drive up through the mountains from either San Jose or Santa Cruz, so it doesn’t matter which area you come from. All of the wineries had spectacular views and were a quarter of the price of wineries in Napa or Sonoma.

Saratoga Wineries to visit:

  • Cooper Garrod Vineyards: Set on a horse ranch looking over San Jose. The views are beautiful and the setting is very unique. Bring a picnic to enjoy with your wine! Dogs are welcome.
  • Thomas Fogarty Winery: When you pull up to this winery, you will be in awe of the beautiful rolling vineyards and the incredible view of San Jose down below. There are places to sit outside if you have dogs with you. The tasting room is small but elegant.
  • The Mountain Winery: Yet another winery with a view. Check out their website before you go to see what events they have going on. There are countless concerts and various other events going on at this winery throughout the year.

Day 3—Santa Cruz and Monterey

Santa Cruz Beach sign

Santa Cruz was not originally on our list of places to stop, but since we would be passing right through it to get to Monterey, we decided to add it on. First, we stopped at Natural Bridges State Park and right after that, we stumbled upon a surf competition. That was really cool to watch since it’s not something we get to see back home!

Natural Bridges State Park in Santa Cruz, California

We enjoyed spending a few hours walking along the beach and seeing the sea lions below the wharf. There was also a great taco spot where we grabbed a late lunch!

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

Things to do in Santa Cruz:

  • Natural Bridges State Park: The state park and beach are big and you can spend some time exploring it if you’d like or you can just do what we did and check out the Natural Bridges from the lookout point. The beach and the park do not allow dogs so keep this in mind if this is a place where you’d like to explore further.
  • Santa Cruz Wharf: The number of wharves we visited while in California was astounding! (Side note: I had no idea the plural of “wharf” was “wharves” until I wrote this post.) This wharf was very long but I enjoyed the cutouts at the end where the sea lions could be seen resting on the support beams below. Note: Dogs are not allowed on the wharf.
  • Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk: Again, no dogs allowed. Eric and I quickly walked down just to see what it was all about. It’s very family-oriented and would make a fun evening if you are staying in the area. It is free to walk through, but all games and rides cost money.

Places to eat in Santa Cruz:

  • Las Palamas Taco Bar: Our one meal in Santa Cruz and it was a delicious one! The portions are massive and relatively inexpensive for California standards. I had the vegetarian burrito which came with bean sprouts on it; unexpected but absolutely delicious. Everyone else enjoyed several different types of tacos which were all amazing.
  • Linda’s Seabreeze Cafe: A great spot for breakfast with typical American breakfast items. Reviews are outstanding, even from locals!
  • Walnut Avenue Cafe: Great for breakfast or lunch. American food with great service!

After we left Santa Cruz we headed to our final stop of the day, Monterey. The drive was a little under an hour and left us with just enough time to check into our hotel and then head to dinner.

Hotels in Monterey:

  • Lighthouse Lodge and Cottages: This was a good budget option especially if you are bringing a dog with you. We stayed there because my brother-in-law and his girlfriend had their dogs with them.
  • Monterey Plaza: This is a bit nicer option right in the heart of downtown Monterey. You’ll be right next to the Aquarium and many great dining options.

Dinner in Monterey:

  • Beach House at Lover’s Point: We were looking for a dinner spot with a view and Beach House had an incredible one. Highly recommend making reservations especially if you want a view. We loved that the patio was surrounded by glass because it protected us from the wind. I am a huge Big Little Lies fan so it was very cool to be eating at a restaurant right next to Lover’s Point, which is a main filming location for the show. The food wasn’t the best I’ve had anywhere, but the views at sunset made up for it.
  • Pizza My Heart: If you’re looking for a quick and cheap option for dinner, check out the highly rated Pizza My Heart. You won’t break the bank and you’ll still have a delicious meal!

Day 4—Monterey and Carmel-by-the-sea

We had one full day in Monterey which was just enough to see the main sights. We did not go to the aquarium, so if that is something on your list you might want to consider adding another day to your stay in Monterey.

Our first stop of the day was to the Old Fisherman’s Wharf. We visited at the very end of May and it was very cold. Make sure you check the weather before you pack! The Wharf was especially cold since it was on the water. Parking was plentiful and not too expensive at $1.00 every half hour.

In my opinion, the Wharf was not a must-do. It was very touristy. However, we did enjoy walking from the Wharf to the main part of Monterey. There is a lovely path along the water.

After the wharf, we made the scenic 17 Mile Drive through Pebble Beach and then made our way to Carmel-by-the-sea for lunch.

Things to do in Monterey:

  • Old Fisherman’s Wharf: The 3rd wharf of the trip and my least favorite so far. However, since it was freezing, we made a stop in a little coffee shop at the end of the wharf called Water and Leaves. I had a latte but the rest of our crew had tea and they all raved about it. This shop had so many different types of honey to choose from and a really interesting way of making tea.
  • 17 Mile Drive: This scenic drive through Pebble Beach is not one to be missed if you’re in Monterey or Carmel. The scenery is breathtaking and if you enjoy seeing incredible mansions, there are plenty. If you’re into golf, this is where the prestigious Pebble Beach Golf Resort resides.
  • Afternoon in Carmel-by-the-Sea: Carmel is a charming little town that looks straight out of a storybook. We enjoyed strolling around, grabbing lunch, and shopping a little bit before heading back to Monterey.
  • Princess Monterey Whale Watching: Whale watching was at the top of my list for Monterey, but sadly no one else in my group wanted to go. I hope I’ll get to go back and do this one day! Whales can be spotted any time of year, but depending on when you go, there will be different species migrating. If you decide to do this activity, make sure you bring warm clothes and a windbreaker no matter what time of year you’re traveling.
  • Monterey Bay Aquarium: We have a pretty fantastic aquarium in Atlanta and since we had limited time in Monterey, we decided to pass on this activity. But if you love aquariums or are traveling with kids, this is one of the best aquariums in the world.
Fisherman's Wharf in Monterey California
Fisherman’s Wharf

Day 5—Big Sur

View from a lookout point in Big Sur, California

We only passed through Big Sur, but it took most of our day. I was so surprised at how little there was in this area in terms of civilization. It was wonderful to see such a popular place seem almost untouched by man, but at the same time, it presented an issue when we got hungry or needed a restroom.

Our day started with breakfast near our hotel in Pacific Grove (next to Monterey). We ate at an incredible cafe called Crema, which I highly recommend if you’re staying in Monterey or Pacific Grove. I had avocado toast and a latte.

After breakfast, we started on our long drive to Paso Robles. We severely underestimated how long it would take us to get there. We knew we would be stopping along the way to take pictures but we didn’t realize just how many times we would be stopping.

View from a lookout point in Big Sur California

If you look up the trip from Pacific Grove to Paso Robles without any stops along Highway 1, it shows the drive as about 3.5 hours. Our trip took double that. Here are some of the key stops we made along the way (they are also highlighted in the map below):

Bixby Creek Bridge

Bixby Creek Bridge Big Sur California

This iconic bridge has become famous after being shown in the HBO show, Big Little Lies. Even if you know nothing about this show, it’s worth a stop. The view from the area right before the bridge is absolutely beautiful.

Pfeiffer Beach

Sign for Pfeiffer Beach in California

The turn to get to Pfeiffer Beach was hard to spot from the road. From the turn off the highway, it was a long and difficult drive to the parking area. The reason it was difficult was that it was almost a single lane at some points and hard to see if anyone was coming the other way.

Waves crashing against rocks at Pfeiffer Beach in California

If you decide to stop here (and you definitely should) just be aware of this and try to let others pass if you have space to scoot over. Highlights at Pfeiffer Beach include purple sand, beautiful rock formations, and just an overall unique landscape. It’s especially striking for those of us who come from the East Coast.

McWay Falls

McWay Falls in Big Sur California

This waterfall is very unique because it spills out onto a gorgeous beach. You can hike down to the beach, but while we were there, the trail was closed. Even though we couldn’t get close to the falls, we could still catch a beautiful view from above.

Elephant Seal Vista Point

Elephant seals on the beach in California

If you’ve ever dreamt of seeing elephant seals in their natural habitat, this is your moment! I can’t say this was a dream of mine, but it was very cool to see. There were so many of them scattered along the beach.

There were two parking lots for the elephant seals but Google Maps wanted us to stop at the second one. It looked more crowded, so we decided to stop at the first parking lot instead. I am so glad we did this because not only were the two parking lots connected by a boardwalk, but the boardwalk closest to our parking lot was completely empty. We didn’t have to fight a single person to get good photos!

Elephant seals on the beach in California

Some reviews noted a foul smell at this stop due to all the seals, but we didn’t notice anything (and I have a very sensitive nose). It’s quite possible the wind was blowing in the right direction for us that day, so I can’t be sure on this.

Cake at The Madonna Inn

The sign for The Madonna Inn in California

The last stop we made before heading to Paso Robles was the famous Madonna Inn. The Madonna Inn is known for its over-the-top rooms and eccentric decor. They are also famous for their over-the-top cakes. We didn’t stay there, but I couldn’t be that close and not stop for cake!

If you are dying to try their cake like I was, you can just make a quick stop into their restaurant to buy a slice to-go. This wasn’t clear on their website or any other blog I read so I wanted to make that clear in this post. When you drive up, park anywhere near the front (if you drive under an overhead walkway, you’ve gone too far).

The restaurant is to the left of the entrance to the reception area and it’s not marked at all. The bakery is to the left as soon as you walk into the restaurant. A slice was $8 and fed us for two days! We got the raspberry white chocolate and it was incredible.

Where to stay in Paso Robles

Paso Robles is the perfect place to utilize Airbnb both for the price and for the experience. The town is very spaced out and mostly farms and vineyards. Staying in an Airbnb allowed us to see the beautiful countryside and enjoy the peace and tranquility of being almost out in the middle of nowhere at a fraction of the cost of most of the hotels.

  • Tiny home next to a vineyard: This is where we stayed. As you can see from the photo above, the sunsets over the vineyard were beyond amazing. Surprisingly, this tiny home was plenty big enough for the two of us. The only issue we had was that the shower temperature was a bit cold. If that doesn’t bother you, make sure you check out this lovely place!
  • Coyote Ridge Tiny Home: This was second on our list for tiny homes (obviously I was on a tiny home kick). We didn’t go with this option because it was a bit far out from Paso Robles. This would be a great option if you had more than one full day in the area. It was significantly cheaper than where we ended up staying, so this would also be a great budget option.
  • Allegretto Vineyard Resort Paso Robles: If you’d rather stay in a hotel, this one is very nice and not too expensive. They even have a tasting room on-site!

Get 15% off your first stay with Airbnb by clicking here!

Day 6—Paso Robles

Vineyards a Sculpterry Winery in Paso Robles California

If you subscribe to my newsletter, you already know a fun fact about Paso Robles. It is not pronounced how you would think. Instead of Paso ROBLAYS it is actually pronounced Paso ROBUHLZ. There, now you know. You can also just call it Paso (I heard many locals say this).

We started off our morning in Paso Robles having breakfast at Kitchenette which was actually in Templeton. It reminded me of a modern take on a cute local breakfast diner. I was really wanting a croissant, but they didn’t have any that morning. I decided to get a smoothie bowl which was delicious!

After breakfast, we hit the ground running with our first winery of the day at 10:00 am. Nothing says wine country like wine after breakfast!

Here are all the wineries we visited. I plan to do a more extensive post on Paso Robles wineries in the future, so stay tuned.

Paso Robles Wineries:

  • Eberle Winery: Tasting of 5 wines and guided wine cave tour are FREE. Hours are 10:00am – 6:00pm everyday. They have a wonderful outdoor patio overlooking their vineyards. Eberle is one of the few wineries in Paso Robles with wine caves.
  • Tobin James Cellars: Tasting of UNLIMITED wines is free (I had to tell them I didn’t want anymore). Hours are 10:00am – 6:00pm everyday. Their wines were not my favorite, but the staff was wonderful and gave us great recommendations for the area. The setting was not the prettiest (no vineyards onsite, it’s next to the highway), but their tasting room looked like a wild west saloon which was pretty cool.
  • Sculpterra Winery: Tasting of 5 wines is $10. Hours are 10:00am – 5:00pm. Even though the tasting wasn’t free, I really loved this winery. When we arrived, we were the only ones there and had the entire tasting room to ourselves. Sculpterra is known for its gardens which display stunning sculptures. It was fun walking around the gardens and admiring the sculptures as we sipped our wine.
  • Cass Winery: Tasting of 5 wines is $15, but waived if you purchase a bottle. Hours are 11:00am – 5:00pm. We chose Cass because they served food and we planned on having lunch there. At this point, I did not want any more wine. But we did purchase a bottle of their most popular wine to enjoy at a later time. Their food was absolutely wonderful so I would highly recommend this winery as your lunch stop during the day.
Tobin James tasting room in Paso Robles California
Tobin James tasting room

We were absolutely exhausted after our late lunch at Cass Winery. Our plan was to take a quick nap at our Airbnb and then head to dinner, but we ended up sleeping until 7:30 pm (SUPER unlike us). Our dinner that night ended up being Wendy’s because many of the restaurants in Paso Robles close at 9:00 pm (something I wish I knew ahead of time). I know that seems late enough, but with the location of our Airbnb, it would have taken us 30 minutes just to get to the downtown area. Not every travel day is going to be a winner!

If you don’t sleep through dinner like we did, check out the restaurants below.

Dinner in Paso Robles

Day 7—Pismo Beach and Santa Barbara

Surfer at Pismo Beach California

We left Paso Robles early and made a pit stop at a local donut shop called Templeton Donuts Plus. We both had the most incredible breakfast sandwiches and got a couple of donuts to-go for the road. By the way, Templeton is even smaller than Paso Robles (population: 7,700). As we sat inside the donut shop eating our sandwiches, every single person who walked in the door knew the entire staff and everyone else inside the shop (excluding us). It was so charming!

The goal of the day was to reach Santa Barbara with enough time to walk around town and see the sunset on the wharf. This drive didn’t take us as long as our day driving through Big Sur because there weren’t as many stops to make. Here are all the stops we made along the way:

Morro Bay

Morro Rock at Morro Bay in California

Morro Bay is known for its massive Morro Rock which juts straight out of the Pacific. You can drive right up to it, which we did, but it was really cold and windy so we didn’t walk on the beach.

Instead, we stopped in front of the rock at the bay where playful otters were swimming. They were absolutely precious! This stop took us about 30 minutes, although, Eric had to practically pull me away from the otters.

Otters swimming at Morro Bay in California

Dinosaur Caves Park

The tiny, but beautiful, Dinosaur Caves Park sits on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The views are breathtaking and no, there are no dinosaurs.

So what’s with the name? Funny you ask. In the 1940s, the owner of the park partially built an enormous dinosaur on the land. The idea was that visitors would be able to walk into the caves below through the body of the dino.

The project was eventually abandoned in 1950 and the property was left to sit for almost 45 years. Then a group of locals formed a society committed to the preservation of the land after their own city council couldn’t decide what to do with it. The locals put in their own money to create the beautiful park as it is today. The caves have since collapsed, so you cannot walk into them anymore, but the name still piques the interest of travelers driving along Highway 1.

Pismo Beach

Pismo Beach sign California

Have you ever watched a TV show set on the California coast where everyone seems to know how to surf and people say things like “rad” or “stoked”? That is Pismo Beach.

It was cloudy when we first arrived but luckily, by lunchtime, the sun came out warming up the area. We parked in a free parallel spot by some homes and walked out to the end of the pier. There were tons of surfers and we even spotted a sea otter paddling playfully along the shore with a clam in its paws!

Sea otter swimming at Pismo Beach California

Since it was lunchtime, we decided to eat at a restaurant on the beach called Wooly’s. It was your typical American beachside restaurant. We split an order of nachos and onion rings (they said they were the best, so we had to).

Our order of onion rings was massive. There were at least 15 in the basket. Similarly, the nachos were so big you would have thought we were a family of five. Based on the prices we had been paying in other parts of California, I was shocked by how much we got for what we paid.

Santa Barbara

Pelican on the wharf in Santa Barbara California

Our final stop of the day was the gorgeous beachside town of Santa Barbara. I think what shocked me the most was the contrasting landscape. The city seemed to be surrounded by mountains and then all of a sudden they dropped into the ocean. It was gorgeous!

First, we checked into our hotel for the night, A White Jasmine Inn. The reviews for this bed and breakfast were wonderful and it was a fraction of the cost of other hotels in the area which is why we went for it.

However, the owner rubbed us the wrong way when he initially checked us in. As he was getting our room key I guess he thought Eric didn’t look happy. Eric was just tired from driving all day but the owner looked at him and said something like, “Don’t look so sad, your marriage can’t be that bad can it?” I was shocked as was the couple standing next to me who were checking in at the same time. Not the best first impression to say the least.

Anyway, I think our stay was tainted because of that incident. The fact that the house was extremely old with beds that felt like they were from the 1800s didn’t help either. Also, we were at least 30 years younger than anyone else staying there. I was glad we were only staying one night.

Moral of the story: You win some, you lose some.

Where to stay in Santa Barbara

I linked our hotel above if you’d like to try it out, but I can’t recommend it to anyone based on our experience. Other people seem to have loved their stay, so if you’re on a budget it might be a good option for you. Here are a few others to check out:

  • Harbor House Inn: Great location, within walking distance to the wharf and restaurants. You can’t beat the price for the location.
  • De La Vina Inn: Close to downtown but I wouldn’t say it’s within walking distance. Although, we never had an issue finding free street parking near the wharf. The price is great for the area!
  • Hotel Californian: SPLURGE ALERT! If you’re looking to treat yourself a bit while in Santa Barbara, this is the place. Great location, great views, and stellar service. It’s the number one hotel in Santa Barbara and number 13 in the entire state of California.

Where to eat in Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara Shellfish Company in California

If you only have one night like us, I suggest eating on the wharf. The food might not be Michelin Star rated, but it’s all in the experience.

We loved grabbing a table outside with a view of the sunset. It was cold but absolutely beautiful. Keep in mind that the sun will not set straight into the water in Santa Barbara like most places on the west coast. The city is set at an angle so your best view of the sunset will be on the wharf.

  • Santa Barbara Shellfish Company: This is where we ate and it was amazing. Of course, you have to enjoy seafood. Eric had a massive crab and I had the coconut shrimp. The food was great and the view was incredible. We were lucky enough to grab the last outside table which we noticed was extremely coveted around sunset time (there were only 4 or 5 booths outside). The service was fantastic. We even saw the staff bring free beers out to those who had to wait longer than 15 minutes for a table.
  • Boathouse at Hendry’s Beach: This is a slightly nicer dining option at sunset serving mostly local seafood. The view is of the beach, you so won’t actually see the sun setting like you would on the wharf, but the colors of the sky will still look beautiful over the water.
  • Bella Vista at The Four Seasons: For a more upscale and romantic dining option, this is your spot. Check this out for breakfast, lunch, or dinner!
Sunset on the wharf in Santa Barbara California
Sunset from the Wharf

Day 8—Drive back to San Jose or spend the night in Los Angeles

If we had found a good flight option going home through Los Angeles, we would have spent our last night there. However, our most cost-effective option was to fly home through San Jose.

Since we didn’t want to spend 8 consecutive hours in the car, we chose to drive the boring but fastest way back on Highway 5 (making a quick detour through Beverly Hills just because). Thank goodness for podcasts.

If you can avoid this, I would. That was the most boring drive I’ve ever had to endure.

If you’re able to spend the night in Los Angeles, check out this TripAdvisor post on the best neighborhoods. Depending on your interests, you might like one part of LA better than the other.

Keep in mind, the traffic in LA is horrendous, so either try to stick to areas not too far from the airport or plan to leave for the airport several hours before your flight.

California is such a beautiful state and so diverse in what it has to offer travelers. Whether you decide to take a road trip or just spend your time in one of the wonderful cities on this list, you’re sure to have an incredible vacation.

Looking for more California travel inspiration? Check out my top picks for guidebooks here:


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